Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Are the Critics Hustling Us on American Hustle?

American Hustle gets a 94 percent positive rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, but I can't agree that it's really that great.

Christian Bale as a chubby hustler and his girl played by Amy Adams build exceptional character studies. Bradley Cooper as an FBI agent, Jennifer Lawrence as Bale's dumb-ish wife, and Jeremy Renner as the mayor of Camden, New Jersey turn in performances that are almost as good.

The problem is that the plot meanders along and the hustle the group plans isn't all that interesting. Perhaps that's because it's loosely based on the Abscam FBI investigation of the late 70s in which several prominent politicians actually did go to jail.

A little more fiction or creativity might have made this movie better. It seems to aspire to a Pulp Fiction kind of noir, but it lacks the twists and humor to pull it off.

All that said, this is an enjoyable film. Just keep your expectations in check heading into the theater.

**** out of ***** stars

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Top 90 Albums of 2013

Christopher Owens
It was a robust year for music (as always). There is barely enough time to listen to all these albums, let alone many of the all-time great discs. 

There is lots to choose from here. But if you are a fan of hook-laden pop/rock music, don't hesitate to start with dropping everything you're doing right now and go buy the top 10 on this list. Then you can make your way to discovering 11 through 90.

Yuck, when they still had Daniel Blumberg
Much like my list of 2011's Top 70 Albums, Girls beats out Yuck for the top spot. This time, it's Girls' lead singer Christopher Owens' underrated solo album at #1 (made even more personally amazing after being blown away by his intimate show at the 9:30 Club). But Yuck gets some laughs too, because their album is at #2, which is incredible considering former leader Daniel Blumberg's breakway solo debut by his new band Hebronix clocks in at #3.

To listen to lots of highlights from this list, check out my free Spotify Best of 2013 list.

90. My Bloody Valentine – mbv
89. Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band – Take Me to the Land of Hell
88. Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark – English Electric
87. Steve Martin and Edie Brickell – Love Has Come For You
86. Adam Ant – Wonderful
85. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP2
84. Kanye West - Yeezus
83. Deerhunter - Monomania
82. Fonda – Sell Your Memories
81. 18th Dye – Amorine Queen
80. Tennis – Small Sound
78. Lee Ranaldo and the Dust – Last Night on Earth
77. Jason Isbell - Southeastern
76. Johnny Marr – The Messenger
75. British Sea Power – Machineries of Joy
74. Empire Of the Sun – Ice On the Dune
73. Rogue Wave – Nightingale Floors
72. The Olms – The Olms
71. The Little Ones – The Dawn Sang Along
70. Dean Wareham – Emancipated Hearts
69. Jack Johnson – From Here to Now to You
68. Elf Power – Sunlight on the Moon
67. The Boy Least Likely To – The Great Perhaps
66. Treetop Flyers – The Mountain Moves
65. Mandolin Orange – This Side of Jordan
64. The Paranoid Style – The Purposes of Music In General
63. Pop Levi – Never Never Love
62. Big Dipper – Crashes on the Platinum Planet
61. Jimi Hendrix – People, Hell & Angels
60. Dent May – Warm Blanket
59. Ducktails – The Flower Lane
58. Ra Ra Riot – Beta Love
57. Thao – Know Better Learn Faster
56. Robyn Hitchcock – Love From London
55. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros - Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
54. Islands – Ski Mask
53. Jim James – Regions of Light and Sound
52. Father John Misty – Fear Fun
51. Taken By Trees – Other Worlds
50. Grouplove – Spreading Rumours
49. Lorde – Pure Heroine
48. Darlings – Perfect Trip/Warma
47. The Strokes – Comedown Machine
46. Minor Alps – Get There
45. Kings of Leon – Mechanical Bull
44. Belle & Sebastian – The Third Eye Centre
43. Snoop Lion - Reincarnated
42. Free Energy – Love Sign
41. Kurt Vile – Wakin On a Pretty Daze
40. David Bowie – The Next Day Extra
39. Yo La Tengo – Fade
38. Eternal Summers – Correct Behavior
37. Tegan & Sara – Closer
36. Haim – Days Are Gone
35. The Coup – Pick a Bigger Weapon
34. Sebadoh – Defend Yourself
33. Weinland – Los Processaur
32. Mikal Cronin – MCII
31. Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record
30. Surfer Blood – Pythons
29. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Split/Fly By Wire
28. Robert Pollard – Honey Locust Honky Tonk
27. Camera Obscura – Desire Lines
26. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
25. Iron & Wine – Ghost On Ghost
24. Jacobites – Old Scarlett
23. The Polyphonic Spree – Yes, It’s True.
22. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
21. Superchunk – I Hate Music
20. Of Montreal – Lousy With Sylvianbriar
19. Mazes – Ores & Minerals
18. Palmyra Delran – You Are What You Absorb
17. Jamaica – No Problem
16. Dead Stars – High Gain
15. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion – Wassaic Way
14. Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium
13. The Blank Tapes – Vacation
12. Phoenix – Bankrupt!
11. The Postelles - … And It Shook Me
10. San Cisco – The Awkward EP
09. The Babies – Our House on the Hill
08. The Virgins – Strike Gently
07. The Replacements – Songs For Slim
06. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
05. Paul McCartney - NEW
04. Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
03. Hebronix – Unreal
02. Yuck – Glow and Behold
01. Christopher Owens - Lysandre

Monday, December 23, 2013

It's Always Warm in Philadelphia ... in December?

You may have noticed a distinct lack of world travel blogs lately here at Pop Culture Lunch Box. 

It's true, I haven't been going to excellent places of old like South Africa, Thailand, Tanzania, and Brazil, but you know, I've never spent much time in Philadelphia, a mere 140 miles from Washington D.C. And it's a fun place. Especially on a 70-degree December weekend!

Well, that's if you don't talk about the ridiculous traffic. It took us more than four hours to get there Friday afternoon, much of that at a standstill in the few blocks approaching our hotel.

Rachel, Jackson, me, Zoey on the front steps of the Union League
Me in front of the Union League
And what a hotel. The Union League of Philadelphia, voted "the best city club in the country."It was founded in 1862 "to support the policies of Abe Lincoln." He was a member, as was William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses Grant. Today, it is members only and "remains a bastion of the elite." It is the "oldest and most prominent of the remaining loyalty leagues."

It takes a strong man to down a drink in Lincoln's library (during the wedding reception)

Zoey loved the stroll just north of our hotel past the beautiful City Hall, not too far from the "Rocky" steps

The lovely couple Tom and Tara, who know how to throw a wedding party. I never even got tired of dancing!

Saturday we mostly stuck around the downtown district, although the wedding itself was in a Catholic church in the old downtown section near Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. We made it back over to see those landmarks on Sunday. And Jackson insisted that this part of the trip was pretty boring compared to jumping on the hotel bed and getting candy from a street merchant.

A pretty great photo outside Independence Hall
Capital Bikeshare (on my shirt) hits Philly!

Give the kid some credit. He appreciates himself some Honest Abe.

Pat's. That says it all.
And what would a trip to this legendary town be without stopping in South Philly for Pat's cheesesteak? It's been several years since I had one, but cheesesteak with Cheese Whiz and "wid out" (meaning "no onions") is delicious. It's kind of like Imo's Pizza in St. Louis. You can't possibly imagine why it's so good and why it is so difficult to replicate.

My Radio Interview Describing the Transportation Communications Work I Do

Paul Mackie by MVHere is my recent interview on Transportation Radio. I discuss my work at Mobility Lab in publicizing Arlington County, Virginia’s cutting-edge transportation programs.

I discuss the possibilities for transportation agencies nationwide to do more with less funding (which seems to now be a permanent state of affairs) if they would take a look at Arlington’s blueprint for success and adopt some of the same transportation practices.

Arlington’s “transportation demand management” programs have something for every jurisdiction – no matter whether that area is urban or rural and has a top-notch subway system or simply teleworking and ridesharing programs. Virginia’s 15 TDM agencies is a great statewide example of how this practice can be implemented. Mackie says being “inside the Beltway” is a “double-edged sword” because the assumption is that bureaucrats in Washington D.C. don’t have a clue what goes on in the rest of the country, but the partnership opportunities D.C. presents are immense for hopefully strengthening TDM’s policy and funding cachet. Other issues discussed in my interview with Mackie include:
  • Commuter transportation pre-tax benefits (which will likely be slashed within the next month and will essentially give much greater and unfair incentives for driving than taking public transportation), and
  • The fact that removing traffic jams with very little funding can be significantly accomplished with TDM “demand-based” practices, instead of the typically “supply-based” method of simply building new, expensive, and unnecessary roads.
Photo by M.V. Jantzen

Thursday, December 12, 2013

12 Years a Slave May Just Be the Most Important Movie Ever

My grandfather, Wade Mackie, was a great civil-rights leader in the Martin Luther King Jr.-era south of Louisiana. So when Roots came out when I was a little kid, I think I sort of inherently “got it.”

The TV miniseries certainly still hit me over the head like a sledgehammer. I’ll always remember Kunta Kinte’s plight and will always feel bad for all slaves and puzzle over how some people can be so downright bad, or at the very least clownishly imbecilic, with a big dose of sadistic. It’s still happening all over the world today. Unfortunately, slavery in some way will probably always be happening.

So then Django Unchained was released. With Argo, that was my favorite movie of 2012 (in fact, I named it my 67th favorite movie of all time). This attacked Roots-era, pre-Civil War-era slavery with an eye for how violent it was and how ruthless. It added a huge dose of Tarantino humor and his style of the unorthodox. Despite that overlay, it was powerful. That’s why it was so good.

But then along comes 12 Years a Slave. This blows Roots and Django out of the water. There were loud sobs throughout the theater. I personally don’t think I’ve cried that hard since E.T. (seriously, I’m not making light, I always cry during E.T.).

So it’s a sad story, to say the least. It’s on-fiction based on a book written by Solomon Northup, a wonderful family man and talented and free musician from Saratoga Springs, New York who was recruited to tour the East coast in 1841 before getting kidnapped in Washington D.C. He was one of the few kidnapped slaves to ever escape captivity, which he does after 12 years at a string of hellish plantations throughout Louisiana.

It will be a crime if Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Solomon, doesn’t win the Oscar for best actor. This is a very important movie, and I’m really happy, in my grandfather’s honor, that, at least judging by Hollywood, we’re getting closer and closer to coming to terms with our country’s ugly past and moving forward into a much more tolerant understanding and appreciation of all our differences and similarities.

***** out of ***** stars

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Appropriate Brings Race Into the Discussion at Woolly

Appropriate just wrapped at Woolly Mammoth in Washington D.C. and it is exhibit B of a triumphant return – after a series of questionable productions over the past year or so – as the city’s best theater company.

Following the also-excellent Detroit (exhibit A), Appropriate delves into comedic drama, with black playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins examining white siblings gathering with their families in Arkansas to determine what to do with their deceased father’s hoarded belongings in his decrepit mansion.

Wild child Frank (played with Stanley Kuwalski-like furor by Tim Getman), Bo (a Jack Nicholson-like, cell-phone addicted, big-bucks New Yorker), and nasty racist-like-her father Toni (the always-excellent Deborah Hazlett) discover possessions in their father’s house that lead them to confront whether their family has a history that includes KKK involvement.

The fact that Jacobs-Jenkins is able to keep the play from turning overly dark is a testament to his writing talent and gives Appropriate the stunning power to – hopefully – further our societal conversations about race and equity.

****1/2 out of *****

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Search for the Perfect, Magical Transportation App

This article was originally published November 20 at Mobility Lab.

I’m constantly on the look-out for the perfect, magical app that will help me get from place to place.
Biking to work from Maryland to Virginia, as I do almost every day, I used to utilize, which helped me find the least-painful routes up the monster hills out of Takoma Park.

But now, which also featured the safest and quickest routes on easy-to-view OpenStreetMaps, seems to have died a quiet death.
Sometimes I throw my bike on a WMATA bus or the Metro, but that is no longer as fool-proof in the wake of the NextBusDC app’s also-quiet death. At least you can access the same information online in a browser, but that’s not as convenient when jumping from work to restaurant to bar to home and all points in between.
 An exciting contender in my search is RideScout, which had its beta in Austin this summer and launches in Washington D.C. today. The company is showing D.C. some love with a launch party at startup campus 1776 tonight. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Ron Linton, several members of Congress, and former White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra are all slated to attend.
CEO Joseph Kosper, a Mobility Lab contributor, told me RideScout is a smartphone app that “connects riders with a range of ride-service providers. The RideScout aggregation platform ranks ride-convenience factors such as cost and time to recommend a ‘best ride’ from all ride options available: public buses, transit, subway, taxis via Hailo, limos, shuttles, car2go, Capital Bikeshare, pedicabs, and peer-to-peer ride sharing.”
Kopser began formulating the idea of aggregated ground transportation when he was employed at the Pentagon. He became frustrated with his short commute from North Arlington, and while he had many options to get to work, he had no immediate information or booking capability to take advantage of those options.
The social ridesharing functionality included in the app was born out of his commitment to reducing the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road.
Mayor Gray approves of RideScout’s efforts. “It’s one of my goals as mayor to help the District of Columbia become one of the healthiest, most livable cities in the country,” Mayor Gray said. “I’m happy to be a part of RideScout’s launch because they are working towards a similar goal – helping to make existing and emerging transportation resources more accessible to all our residents.”
Steve Carroll, director of business development and strategy, noted, “Twenty years ago, the mashup of the internet and the PC enabled sites like Expedia™ and Kayak™ to aggregate sufficient information to allow travelers to search for and book airline reservations from the comfort of their own home. Today, the proliferation of GPS and mobile technologies enables RideScout to link its users immediately with multiple ride options as they walk to the curb.
“RideScout is unique because mobile applications usually link riders with only one mode of transportation, with no way to see and compare options in real-time. Frustrated consumers, forced to reference multiple applications and websites, give up and revert to driving their own cars rather than seek alternatives. RideScout solves that problem,” he added.
RideScout officially launches in D.C. today, but the beta apps have been available in iTunes and Google Play for some time. Users can connect to public transportations options, Capital Bikeshare, car2go, Hailo taxis, DC Pedicabs, and more from the app. The company plans to expand to more cities as it adds national-level transportation providers.
Part of this effort includes improving the social-ridesharing function and allowing users to personalize the app in regards to which forms of transportation they see most prominently.